Movie Review: The Founder

The title of this biopic is a misnomer, one brilliantly crafted and promoted by Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton). Kroc was not the founder of McDonalds, the billion-dollar food empire that revolutionized free enterprise. That honor belongs to Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), two brothers who were determined to keep their inexpensive fast-food restaurant a small, local operation in San Bernadino, California.

But the two brothers were no match for the ambitious, fast-talking, traveling salesman who saw the franchise potential of their innovative concept. At age 52, Ray Kroc needed and craved a get-rich-quick scheme that would end his days on the road and nights in seedy motels.

Slowly but steadily, Kroc manipulated and connived his way into the lives and finances of the McDonald brothers. I was fascinated–and often repelled–by Kroc’s relentless search for more effective branding and cost reduction strategies. Nothing was off limits from powdered milk shakes to frozen French fries to nefarious real estate deals. After driving Dick McDonald into a stress-induced diabetes attack, Kroc visited him at the hospital and offered to buy him out. In the end, the two brothers could not even use their own name in the original restaurant they founded.

Kroc’s ruthlessness extended into his personal life. I was shocked by how callously he asked his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) for a divorce and how determined he was not to share any of the McDonalds bounty with her.

A thought-provoking movie about an anti-hero, who lived and promoted his version of the American Dream: If you want something, go out and take it–even if it belongs to someone else.

Movie Review: The Case for Christ

Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, “The Case for Christ” is the film version of Lee Strobel’s best-selling book about his transition from outspoken atheist to devout Christian.

Mike Vogel delivers an excellent performance as the award-winning journalist (Strobel), who prides himself on a facts-only approach to life. That approach is challenged when his wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) responds to the friendly overtures of Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell), the nurse who saved their daughter from choking. After visiting Alfie’s church, Leslie starts reading the Bible and attending more services.

Alarmed at his wife’s “cult” involvement, Lee launches an investigation into Christianity, determined to disprove one of the main tenets of the faith: the resurrection of Christ. He consults with historians, theologians, archaeologists and medical experts throughout the country, hoping to find evidence that will support his hypothesis. While engrossed in his theological research, Lee becomes careless and loses objectivity while reporting a police shooting incident.

Lee’s personal life also suffers. Conversations become heated, and tensions escalate as Leslie takes distance from Lee. While visiting an out-of-town expert, Lee misses the birth of his second child. When his estranged parents visit, Lee picks a fight with his father (Robert Forster), who appears wounded and frustrated as he leaves his son’s home.

I would have liked to have seen more of Faye Dunaway. She played a cameo role as a psychologist who provides the perfect quip to Lee’s argument that 500 eyewitnesses could have been delusional when they claimed to see Jesus after his death. She replied, “That would have been an even bigger miracle than the Resurrection.”

A thought-provoking movie that addresses the existence of God.

Movie Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on the bestselling book by Diane Ackerman, this movie chronicles the efforts of Antonina Zabinski, brilliantly played by Jessica Chastain, and her husband Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) to save 300 Jews during WWII. They ran a covert operation in which Jews were smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto and into their basement hideout, where they were hidden in cages and tunnels. Later, they were transported to safety.

While Dr. Zabinski fits the profile of a classic resistance fighter, Antonina demonstrates a different kind of heroism. Each day, she had to ensure the German soldiers surrounding the zoo didn’t suspect their operation. She was also forced to cultivate an uneasy relationship with Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the chief zoologist for the Nazi regime.

Antonina took her rescuer role several steps further, helping her guests survive emotionally, with their dignity intact. Each evening, after the soldiers left the zoo, she would sneak them into the house for piano concerts, dinner, and conversation.

Jessica Chastain delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, capturing the essence of Antonina—from her Polish accent to her intuitiveness. Some of my favorite scenes involve Antonina interacting with the animals: nursing lion cubs and bicycling alongside a young camel.

Director Niki Caro and cinematographer Andrij Parekh have succeeded in recreating the authenticity of the period, meticulously attending to all details from the bombings to the ghetto conditions to the effects of war on the zoo animals.

A must-see film!

Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

When I first heard of this movie, I assumed it would receive several Oscar nominations. That buzz was apparent at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall. Unfortunately, the Academy chose to bypass the movie.

Disappointing but not discouraging enough to prevent millions of people worldwide from seeing the movie on the big screen and now on DVD.

Set in Africa, the movie has an entirely black-speaking cast and focuses on a five-year period in the life of Phiona Mutesi (brilliantly played by Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate Ugandan girl living a hardscrabble life in a Kampala slum.

The trajectory of Phiona’s life changes when she walks into a small classroom, enticed by an offer of free porridge. There, she discovers the game of chess and a mentor in Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo). She demonstrates an extraordinary talent for the game and easily learns the rules and strategies.

Throughout the film, many life lessons are imparted, some from Katende, others from the colorful cast of characters.

In his first encounter with Phiona, Katende watches the newcomer physically attack the chess kids who mock her. Instead of reprimanding her, he comments, “This is a place for fighters.” Other chess/life lessons include believing in yourself, accepting challenges, “resetting the pieces,” and overcoming defeat.

The tiny girl assigned to teach Phiona the basics shares her love of the game: “In chess, the small one can become the big one. That’s why I like it.”

In five short years, Phiona achieves what many consider an impossible dream for an impoverished African child: Flying to international chess tournaments, enrolling in higher education, and buying a house for her mother (played by Lupita Nyong’o).

Director Mira Nair has succeeded in recreating Phiona Mutesi’s empowering journey while skillfully capturing the intensity of life in Katwe.

A must-see film that will inspire and motivate.

Movie Review: Lion

Working from real-life source material, director Garth Davis masterfully lays out the story of Saroo, a five-year-old Indian child who experienced the unimaginable when he was separated from his brother and ended up on a 1000-mile train ride that carried him from rural India to Calcutta.

In the first half of the film, Saroo (beautifully played by Sunny Pawar) wanders aimlessly through the streets of Calcutta, frantically searching for his brother while struggling to make himself understood and fleeing from unscrupulous adults. Fortunately, the trajectory of his life changes when he is adopted by a childless white couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and moves to Tasmania.

In the second half, Saroo (Dev Patel) appears as a charming, twenty-something man who appears to have adapted well to his privileged environment. But all that changes when he attends a party in Melbourne and recognizes a favorite food from his childhood. Encouraged by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and other friends, Saroo uses Google Earth to search for his birthplace. What follows is a lengthy and frustrating journey as Saroo deals with fragmented childhood memories and an ever-widening radius of possibilities.

As Saroo becomes more and more obsessed with his search, he encounters increasing friction in his relationships with his mother, girlfriend, and troubled adoptive brother (Divian Ladwa). I would have liked more scenes with these characters and flashbacks to his formative years in Melbourne.

It’s not surprising that Lion has been nominated for six Oscars–Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Music Score, Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography. Definitely a major contender and worth seeing.

Movie Review: La La Land

7 Nominations → 7 Wins → Golden Globes Record!

While watching the Golden Globes Awards Ceremony, I got caught up in La La Land fever and knew I had to see this movie…to see if it merited all the hype.

I wasn’t disappointed.

From start to finish, the movie entertains and engages us. The music is simply delightful—not surprising that awards were given for Best Song and Best Musical Score—and the acting is superb—Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have extraordinary screen chemistry.

Set against the backdrop of modern-day Hollywood, this is an old-fashioned story of an aspiring actress who falls for a piano-playing jazz pianist. While much of the movie is grounded in reality, the musical numbers remind us of the razzle-dazzle days of old Hollywood. My favorites include the opening scene where people exit their cars and start dancing on a traffic-clogged freeway in Los Angeles and a later scene where the young lovers take a metaphorical flight up into the stairs of the Rialto Cinema.

I believe it’s impossible to watch this movie and not be uplifted by its inspiring message. Emma Stone said it best: “These have been really rough times. To have something so transporting that brings you joy and nostalgia and hope and heartbreak for two hours is really needed now.” (Interview–Closer Magazine)

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

As a retired mathematics teacher, I took great pride in watching three brilliant African-American women help launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. The film focuses on the untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical prodigy whose grasp of analytic geometry makes her indispensable to NASA.

But Katherine’s workplace environment is far from pleasant.

As the only female mathematician in a sea of white men, she is barely tolerated by her colleagues and forced to endure indignities. I couldn’t believe her half-mile trek to the “colored” bathroom in a separate building and the “colored” coffee pot that was designated for her use. Thankfully, Director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) intervenes.

Acting office supervisor (without the proper title or pay), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) deals with an unsympathetic superior (Kirsten Dunst), who accepts and promotes the idea that segregation is “just the way things are.”

Feisty Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) faces discrimination at all levels when she applies to the engineer training program at the University of Virginia.

Eyes riveted to the screen, I alternated between goose bumps and brimming tears, as I watched these ‘60s women surmount challenges and receive the respect and recognition they rightfully deserved. Photos of the actual women in the closing credits add to the authenticity of this larger-than-life film.